Reader Writes, July 2018
The Royal wedding was of course an early summer delight, but I find myself thinking about Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon on love. What an extraordinary responsibility and opportunity to preach to an audience said to be two billion people worldwide. What would it take to break that record? Those of us, most of us perhaps, used to a C of E traditional sermon using a text from a pulpit would have been struck if not unnerved by the bishop’s rhetorical style. It was comforting to see the iPad ready on the lectern, but it didn’t seem to get used after the first minute. The bishop is a free-stylist, and there is a lot to learn from that.
It was traditionally said that whilst message matters much, manner matters more. It is easy to see in this case that the bishop’s rhetoric quickly captured and charmed his audience. The man was genuine, and he showed it by his enthusiasm and, I’m sure, his love for the couple and the congregation. It certainly helps me to think of a sermon as a conversation; this was certainly a conversation with its use of threes –“love God, love you neighbours, and while you’re at it, love yourself”- and repetition; I hope we are all thinking “Yes, the power of love!” It’s more the way we talk after a pint at The Oxford or The Tavern. In this case it was only the candles that might have gone flying as he leant out of the pulpit and looked around to see whom to wake up next.
Following Aristotle’s famous dictum, the pathos (emotion) was there in heaps, the ethos (credibility) was convincing, but what of the argument? A wedding was not the place for anything faintly resembling a lecture, but none the less, hundreds of millions of people were told that love matters and love is powerful, and the source of love is God himself. The notion that society and relationships in them could be governed by love was startling enough when you are made to think about what it could mean; then try imagining the idea that relations with N Korea or Iran or the most impoverished nations on earth could be governed by principles of love, and forgiveness and generosity.
A few sermon writers have tried to give it a professional critique whilst acknowledging this as a powerful witness for Christian faith. But attempts to complain that the message of love was incomplete or one-dimensional were well countered by comparison to the wedding at Cana. There Jesus was also a guest and he gave no sermons, nor discouraged the quaffing of much fine wine, but he blessed the host’s family and their guests with his abundance and, it seems, humour. I enjoyed the Archbishop’s repost to a hapless reporter who asked the two bishops whether the sermon hadn’t been a bit unconventional. “There’s nothing conventional about God!” said Justin Welby, both bishops grinning mischievously.
Bishop Michael Curry repeatedly reminded us of the power of redemptive love. And the word redemptive tells us something important. John puts is simply in his first letter: ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our shortfalls.’ I love him, but I know he loves me much much more.